In the wintry northern hemisphere, this is a dark time of year. Regardless of the Christmas lights, there is less daylight, and quite often when it is daylight, it’s grey and overcast and not very light.
Lack of light can really affect your mood, as I was reminded this week. I found myself in my office, feeling completely paranoid and stressed and uptight and ready to cry. Nothing particularly bad had happened, but I felt like it had, or I was anticipating it happening.
The day after, yesterday, I was working from home. I was able to sleep in a little, and I worked the whole day by a window, so I was exposed to natural light. I even left the house to go out for lunch, and again, sat by the window in the café. At the end of the day I was surprised how many things I’d crossed off my to-do list, and how good I felt, and then I twigged – S.A.D.
I first experienced S.A.D. – Seasonal Affective Disorder – about 20 years ago. Not my first winter in the UK, but maybe my fourth or fifth one. I was working in an office in a not-very-interesting part of town (nothing but big expensive houses and small expensive shops). I travelled to and from work by Tube (underground!), and at lunchtime I tended to stay inside rather than walk around outside in the cold.
By mid-December I had a strange sense of paranoia kicking in. I needed to get away on holiday – not wanted, needed – and I was searching for a cheap flight to somewhere – anywhere – that was warmer and sunnier. I felt hemmed in and weighed down and panicky.
But then Christmas came and I took some time off. I slept in, woke up with the sun. I was out with friends, shopping, going for walks. And that sense of panic slowly trickled away.
I forget where I first read about S.A.D. but I recognised the symptoms and realised immediately that was what I had experienced. It’s not just feeling a bit miserable because it’s raining again for the third day in a row, it’s a recognised condition that affects your mental health. My mental health.
Being aware of my tendency to be affected means I have put measures in place to counter its effects. I use a Lumie light to wake up in the morning – it comes on gradually so you wake up more naturally to a light room, instead of being ripped from sleep by a screaming alarm and snapping into consciousness in a dark room. This helps me.
But what I forgot is the importance of actual exposure to natural light. My office is in the interior of the building. I have a window that faces a central atrium and I get maybe 30 minutes of sunlight coming in but only during the summer months when the sun is in the right position. In the winter I get no natural light where I sit.
Over the past few weeks, with hysteria building around getting things done before year-end , I have been working longer hours, eating lunch at my desk, not taking proper breaks. This has taken a toll on my mental health to the point where I find myself wanting to cry at my desk for no reason. S.A.D.
Time to take action. The sun is shining today. I’ve got shopping tasks to do at lunchtime. Time to leave the desk, leave the office and go outside.